Jon Lewis: 'You don't coach gender, you coach people'

New England Women head coach wants to embrace positivity, just as the men's team has done

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
Jon Lewis, the new England Women's Head Coach, was a part of the men's squad back-room staff this summer

Jon Lewis, the new England Women's Head Coach, was a part of the men's squad back-room staff this summer  •  Getty Images

When England's all-new, singing, dancing - well, entertaining - Men's Test team lost to South Africa by an innings at Lord's in August there were murmurings (outside the camp, at least) that perhaps they'd gone too hard with their aggressive approach. The message from Brendon McCullum, their recently appointed head coach who had fashioned this new way of thinking and playing, however, was that perhaps they hadn't pushed hard enough.
At the time, Jon Lewis was England's elite men's pace bowling coach, and very much an insider as that message was discussed in the change-room debrief, and enacted too, as England's emphatic victories in the next two Tests swung the series 2-1.
Less than a week into his new role as England Women's Head Coach, Lewis admits many of his thoughts on his new team are those of an "outsider", but he is already certain of a few things - one being that he wants them to play a similar brand of cricket to that which we witnessed from the men's side over the summer.
"My perception from outside was that sometimes the team plays a little safe," Lewis tells ESPNcricinfo at the ECB's National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough, where England Women's white-ball squads are preparing to travel to the Caribbean for three ODIs and five T20Is against West Indies starting on December 4.
"Sometimes there's a little caution around, especially in the pressure moments of big games," Lewis adds. "I'll be encouraging the team to walk towards the danger, so to speak, and actually say, 'okay, in those moments, who's brave enough and who's courageous enough to take the game on at that point?'
"It's something I've seen work incredibly well in the men's game, around England's white-ball team, and this summer again in the Test side. That's part of my coaching journey I won't ever forget, the lessons I've learned from that and how just a slight shift in mindset in how you approach the game of cricket can really change where the pressure is in the game.
"I took a lot from this summer and it basically compounded my learning from working around the white-ball team before that. Players don't want to play safe, or don't want to play with fear. They want to play with freedom, and they want to go and express themselves. So I'll be encouraging the team to play that way.
"Transferring pressure in games of cricket is such a fascinating thing to do, and we're going to learn how to do that, because that's probably something at the moment where the team is not quite as confident as it could be."
To Lewis, it's an approach that is easily transferrable.
"You don't coach gender, you coach people," he says. "My role immediately is to get to know the players as much as possible and then make the judgment call - and it's up to me to make those judgment calls on a daily basis with each and every single individual - as to how you're going to coach them."
With the England side undergoing a significant injection of youth under Lewis' predecessor, Lisa Keightley, he might just have the perfect blend of personnel to embrace such a style of play. The likes of Alice Capsey, Freya Kemp, Issy Wong and Lauren Bell seized their opportunities over the English summer with the fearlessness that their ages - ranging from 17 to 21 - seem to command. And Lewis sees no reason to rein that in.
"You've got to let them fly," he says. "It's a massive part of why I took this job on, you can see the huge amount of talent within the group, it's incredible to see the skill level. The movement, the appetite, the energy and the balance between the younger players will push the senior players on, with the energy that they bring."
Lewis hopes that that same youthful exuberance can inspire the fans too.
Inspired himself by a quote from Wayne Smith, the seasoned rugby coach whose New Zealand Women's team defeated England in the World Cup final earlier this month: "I never thought in a hundred years that I'd be standing out in the middle of Eden Park with 40,000 people chanting 'Black Ferns'," Lewis hopes his team can build a similar following.
"The idea I've got longer-term for the team is that I want them to fill stadiums," Lewis says. "Can we, as an individual team, get people to come and watch us because they're really entertained and they really like the skill that they see? That's what's happening in other sports. I'm not sure we're quite there yet in cricket, but that's where I want to get to.
"I don't think that's going to happen overnight, but it might do because of the growth we see is happening and how fast things are moving. That's the exciting bit about the job."
Some 15,000 tickets have already sold for next year's first Ashes T20I at the 25,000-seat Edgbaston. The match follows a Test at Lord's as part of the multi-format series, with further T20Is to be played at The Kia Oval and Lord's and three ODIs in Bristol, Southampton and Taunton.
More pressing, however, is getting to know the team well enough in the space of 10 T20Is to challenge defending champions Australia at the World Cup in South Africa in February. As reported by ESPNcricinfo, England plan to play New Zealand in a three-match pre-tournament series upon arriving in South Africa, followed by two ICC warm-ups.
A group of 19 England players will fly to Antigua on Tuesday, comprising an ODI squad for three matches against West Indies before the T20 squad take on the same opposition in five games - one in Antigua followed by four in Barbados. Those T20s form an important part of World Cup preparations and will leave Lewis with plenty to think about.
"We need to work out what our best XI is," Lewis says. "Over the course of those 10 games, what's our best XI? [We need to] be really clear about what each individual has to do within that best XI so when we step on the field for the first game in the World Cup, we know pretty much where we're at.
"That may change because of obviously injuries, but knowing this is our best XI, this is how we're going to play, let's go on to try and win a World Cup."
England played plenty of T20Is during their home international season, with the Commonwealth Games showcasing the format in between a full multi-format series against South Africa and India's white-ball tour in September. But Heather Knight, their experienced captain, injured her hip during the first T20I against South Africa and has only just returned to full fitness after undergoing surgery. Nat Sciver led the team in Knight's absence before taking time out to care for her mental health, and with Katherine Brunt also missing the back-end of the summer, Amy Jones took over as captain for three ODIs and three T20Is against India.
And while the absence of so many senior players created a leadership vacuum at key moments of the summer, most notably a disappointing Commonwealth Games campaign, Lewis also believes that a new dynamic has been created by the newer faces on the scene.
"The senior players will come back into the side and they'll bring them some nice stability and some amazing skill level, but they'll be around the group thinking, 'oh, crikey, this has changed a little bit, these players are high-energy and they're excited and they're bubbly and they're having the time of their lives'," he says. "That's exactly how I want the whole team to play, like they're having the time of their lives."
Sciver has opted not to resume her vice-captaincy role for now while she concentrates on returning first as a player during the Caribbean tour, with a replacement as Knight's deputy for that trip yet to be announced.
And so Lewis has begun discussions with Knight about forming a broader leadership group, and is keen to include some of the younger members of the squad. Sophie Ecclestone, the vastly experienced left-arm spinner who is still only 23, deputised for Jones and would be a candidate for that group, while wicketkeeper Jones admitted at the time that captaincy wasn't a role she coveted long-term.
Sciver's absence also shone light on an issue that threatens to become more prevalent in the women's game, as franchise opportunities skyrocket with the addition of the Women's IPL and PSL.
As players grow increasingly willing to admit when they need a break, Knight recently raised the need to manage workloads to avoid getting to that point, and Lewis is acutely aware that that will be part of his job.
"The men's game is getting much, much better at committing to something and then pulling it out," Lewis says. "Those conversations, my experiences of watching that play out amongst a lot of players - especially the fast-bowling group - over the last two, three, four years now, I think will help."
The relatively short-term nature of a cricket career and a player's earning capacity within that time-frame are issues which are compounded for women, who generally don't make as much money as the men and whose opportunities to play, while growing, are fewer.
Wong, who is only 20, recently pulled out of a planned WBBL stint with Hobart Hurricanes, and Lewis can see that happening more in the women's game in future, although he acknowledges that they face added considerations to their male counterparts, in terms of what they're giving up when opting out of franchise tournaments.
"I don't know how it's going to play out and some players will get really tired," he says. "My job is to make sure that when we come to the big moments, and every time we're playing for England when we come to the big moments - the World Cups, the Ashes series - that we've got our best teams available to play all the time.
"But what is also exciting about the group of players that we have now is there's much more depth, so that does create space to bring players in and out a little bit more and be a bit more creative with selection. Part of my job will be to encourage our coaching group to grow that depth even further.
"It's a really tricky balance to create. However, I definitely think it's possible, especially because of what's outside of our best playing XI at the moment."
In the new year, Lewis plans to venture to the regions to fully explore the talent on offer there, with a view to expanding the pool of England players.
He wouldn't have had to look too far last season to see the exploits of Lauren Winfield-Hill, the 32-year-old opening batter who was dropped midway through the 50-over World Cup in March and lost her ECB central contract for the coming year.
Winfield-Hill has forced her way back into the T20I squad for the first time since early 2020 with some impressive performances for two-time Hundred champions Oval Invincibles, after kicking off Northern Diamonds' Charlotte Edwards Cup campaign with a 51-ball 96. She also topped the averages in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, including a player-of-the-match performance as Diamonds won the final in a thriller.
And while Lewis wasn't involved in selection for the Caribbean tour, Winfield-Hill's return sends a message not only to any youngsters hoping to achieve higher honours, but to those who might have thought their time has passed.
"The door isn't closed to anyone," Lewis says. "If you put in performances like Lauren has over the past year and showed her appetite for run scoring and, more importantly I think, the way she's gone about scoring her runs, that's a message that I would like to get out to all the players out there: I'm really open to anyone coming into this squad… If you work hard enough and you perform well enough the door is always open."

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo